New technology is bringing fundamental changes in how we access information. These changes also are occurring in the field of corrections. A key aspect of the WELS Prison Ministry (WELS PM) model for ministry to the incarcerated is a Bible self-study ministry-by-mail program. It has been effective for over two decades but recently experienced a decline in usage. A revised model is likely needed for the future. We also need people who can help WELS PM research, design, and implement that model. Should such a model be successful, the potential exists to reach many more souls with the Gospel with little or no increase in ongoing financial resources. However, additional volunteer resource requirements, both short and long term, could be significant.
The Gospel never changes. Yet the world we live in and some of the ways we share and spread the Gospel are constantly changing. Recent technological developments are causing significant shifts in how correctional facility inmates access information and spend their time. Like large-scale changes in other areas of life, this situation creates both challenges to the existing paradigm and opportunities for a new paradigm for sharing the Gospel.
More than anything, this presentation is a plea for advice, information, and help. If WELS PM is to continue widespread Gospel outreach to inmates, we will need the insights and efforts of several people with diverse sets of knowledge, skills and connections. My prayer is that God will move either those people reading this, or other individuals you recommend, to assist us in pursuing Gospel outreach to inmates using some form of electronic document distribution and collection. This effort will be subject to the unique and manifold constraints and idiosyncrasies associated with communication with incarcerated individuals. Another challenge will be the limited financial resources available and the resulting necessary reliance on largely volunteer efforts.
One of the key pillars of WELS Prison Ministry (WELS PM) has been a ministry-by-mail program that has likely shared God's Word with over 100,000 souls in the 25+ years of our existence. We do other forms of ministry, such as equip and support both people making personal visits to correctional facilities and people that mentor released inmates. But our ministry-by-mail is our most widespread and well-known effort.
The ministry-by-mail comprises two main facets: publication distribution and pen pal letters. Through a central office in New Ulm, Minnesota, a small staff and hundreds of volunteers (both in New Ulm and around the country) facilitate the distribution of God's Word via Bibles, Bible studies, or other devotional publications using the United States Postal Service (USPS). Our Bible studies are self-studies with a final test that an inmate can complete and return to our New Ulm office also via the USPS. A volunteer reviews the test, commenting positively on correct answers and carefully redirecting the inmate to the correct answer if he or she does not answer correctly. Those tests are first returned to New Ulm, then returned to the inmate with a completion certificate. In addition, any inmate that requests a pen pal is assigned to a volunteer pen pal who seeks to encourage and build up the inmate using God's Word in personal correspondence.
Volunteers in New Ulm prepare all the mail that is coming and going. Volunteers all around the country serve as test correctors or pen pals. For our volunteers' safety all correspondence with inmates passes through our New Ulm office to ensure that no volunteer's personal information is passed on to anyone in a correctional facility. The booklet portion of this effort is depicted in Figure 1.
This correspondence course-style for sharing God's Word has been richly blessed. Over our 25 years we have served many thousands of inmates serving time in 49 out of 50 states plus the District of Columbia. The Bible studies are written in simple English or Spanish but express the deep truths of God's Word. We currently offer 37 English and 17 Spanish courses. The inmates constantly express their gratitude for providing these studies. They love what they are learning and that there are test correctors and pen pals willing to invest time in helping them understand God's love and plan of salvation. Returning the corrected tests, which as far as we know is unique in the industry, is a great blessing to them and a key component of the ministry's growth. Word of mouth from one inmate to the next has been our most effective source of referrals. Here are but two of the numerous comments we continually receive:
(Spanish - translated to English) I write to you to thank you for the tests because they have helped me a lot and I have learned about the life of Jesus, of how much He loves us as it says in John 3:16. Thank you for praying for me...you have helped me so much to learn beautiful things from the word of God. May His peace be with you. – Leo
I am currently incarcerated in the Texas Department of Corrections...and came across a brother in Christ who is currently enrolled in your mail-in Bible study course. What a great gift you offer to sinners such as ourselves! I thank you whole-heartedly for your continued devotion to reach out to people such as ourselves that society would much rather lock away and "throw away the key." Many brothers in here have lost everything and EVERYONE and it is nice to see their faces light up when they receive mail from ministries such as yours. For a lot of these people, it is a sense of encouragement and joy to know that they are NOT forgotten and that there is SOMEONE out there who cares for them and prays for them. Again, "thank you" for that, on behalf of those who may not express their gratitude. I see it! And God sees your works! May God continue to bless each and every one of you so that you may continue to share those blessings. Your brother in Christ, Mario
As recently as 2015 we mailed over 15,000 Bible self-study booklets directly to inmates. In addition, booklets are also distributed by prison chaplains and others for which we only have records for bulk shipments, not distribution to inmates. By 2018 the total number of booklets sent directly to inmates was approximately 10,600 with 2019 projected to be at a similar level.
Many state departments of correction, county jails, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons are making electronic devices, such as tablet-style computing devices (tablets), available to inmates for communication and other purposes. Facilities provide commissary accounts to inmates (usually funded by friends or family of the inmate) from which inmates can purchase a variety of items that now includes tablets.
Procedures for tablet usage likely vary from state to state and even facility to facility, but also have some common elements. Given the greater presence of WELS in Wisconsin, we have a somewhat better understanding of the current implementation of tablet usage there. This understanding was gathered from internet research, conversations with Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WI DOC) personnel, and conversations with individuals involved in visitation ministry to Wisconsin inmates; however, like many technological changes, tablet usage is a moving target undergoing near constant modifications. Aspects of tablet usage are subject to change at any time without notice.
As we understand the situation, the WI DOC allows inmates to access limited and monitored electronic message exchange (email) as well as some free electronic books from Project Gutenberg (mostly classic literature in the public domain) via CorrLinks.com. We believe music downloads are also available, but from what platform is unknown. Requirements for email usage are available under at "Sending/Receiving an Inmate Electronic Message" and also here. Inmates must be within a certain physical distance of a "kiosk" to be able to connect to the network for message or information uploads or downloads. This physical access is controlled and only available to inmates at specific times and for limited durations. The network is closed (intranet) and inmates only have access to information allowed by the vendor and the WI DOC. They have no access to the internet or conventional email.
A WI DOC employee has indicated to us that they desire to distribute written information to inmates, such as orientation information, prerelease information, and the like. Because they want to keep control over this information, the WI DOC is seeking to develop its own distribution system for written information that does not involve Project Gutenberg.
Although not necessarily connected with the advent of tablets in correctional facilities, other recent developments are adding to the challenges faced by the WELS PM publication ministry-by-mail. Initially, use of the USPS to deliver our publications was nearly universally accepted by correctional facilities. Unfortunately, because of contraband and other concerns, new restrictions are continually introduced by facilities. As an example, we recently were informed that one facility will no longer accept any packages for inmates greater than ¼-inch thick, which excludes many of our publications. Tighter mailing restrictions has two ramifications. One is that they often prevent us from sending our materials to inmates that desire them. The second is that keeping track of the wide variety of restrictions for the thousands of facilities that we send publications to greatly complicates and slows our mail processing.
It is an exaggeration, but it feels like the challenges that are accumulating are legion. They may not be thousands, but they are many. Thankfully this is Jesus' ministry and we are confident he will provide ways for us to share him with people impacted by incarceration according to his will. Our prayer is that part of Jesus' answer will involve a contribution of knowledge or skill from you or someone you know.
The first type of challenge hampers our ability to serve as many inmates as we can. In addition to the ever-increasing impediments to the delivery of our material to inmates, there are others.
A second type of challenge involves those that present technical obstacles to an effective electronic document distribution and collection system. Here are some examples.
A third type of challenge is the introduction of multiple gatekeepers and lack of any universally accepted standards for electronic distribution of self-study courses and collection of tests.
The challenges seem daunting, but our God is bigger than any challenge. We are relying on him to guide us in the way we should go. The exciting aspect of these developments is the potential to do so much more gospel ministry with existing financial resources. We consider our ministry to be good stewardship. We directly share the gospel through Bible studies with over a thousand individuals every year in a sustained way (multiple gospel touches). We do this at roughly the same cost as the annual support needed for two WELS home mission starts, many of which struggle to involve 100 individuals in Bible study after several years. A large portion of our cost is printing and postage, and we expect some fraction of the ministry to continue using printed books and USPS delivery. But if we develop a viable electronic system, it is conceivable that we could serve many more inmates without a significant increase in cost. Turnaround times for self-study tests (and pen pal letters) could be greatly reduced allowing inmates to accelerate their completion of studies. We would look to the Lord to provide us with the needed increase in test correcting volunteer hours.
Our current plan is a combination of research and action. Our intent is to continue to gather information needed to design solutions nationwide, while concurrently setting up a trial or pilot project. As we learn more, the steps may be modified to better fit the situation. The research portion will involve identifying practices of state departments of correction around the country as well as some county jails. One of the key pieces of information is the specific vendor or electronic system the various entities use to provide information to inmates.
The pilot project will seek to deliver devotions to Wisconsin and Minnesota inmates via their existing email systems. Our goals are to gain helpful knowledge and make helpful contacts through implementing this pilot project. The distributed devotions will also encourage use of the existing self-study courses in print to promote that aspect of ministry for the time being while we seek to develop electronic self-study course capabilities.
We are seeking people with one or more helpful characteristics from which we can build a team to meet these challenges and seize the ministry opportunity. We would pray that all who are willing to explore a role on this team would have a servant's heart and an eagerness to serve Jesus and others with their talents. Given the need to accomplish much, if not all, of the effort on a volunteer basis, we would seek to limit time commitments based on a person's availability. Particularly helpful (but not required) qualities include:
Thank you for giving this presentation your consideration. I'll be eager to receive any insight, suggestions, or questions in the comments. Please recommend this presentation to any colleagues or others you know who may have helpful insights. If you are interested in exploring a role in this effort or would like to recommend someone, please contact me, Dave Hochmuth, at firstname.lastname@example.org . Finally, pray for this ministry. Ask the Lord to graciously grant us the human and other resources we need to continue to share Jesus with an ever-increasing number of lost but eagerly listening souls.
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